What is a moral environment?

Jessica asked:

What is a moral environment?

Answer by Paul Fagan

A moral environment, here interchangeable with a moral community or society, for me, should encapsulate both of the qualities of longevity and a shared code of conduct that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants. Initially this may seem to be an obtuse answer but I will attempt to explain my standpoint.

With regard to longevity, I would not expect an amoral community to be long-lasting. Even if all agreed that the correct code of conduct included lying, thieving and cheating; the element of cooperation that I believe persons need, as beings that intrinsically belong to a community, would not be present. Society would reduce to a few individuals leading lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

This leaves the problem of just exactly what are the values and practices that inhabitants of a moral environment would need to agree upon. This is very tricky to answer and is an intense area for debate as human beings have a tendency to adhere to differing philosophies.

There is often the tendency to imagine what a moral society would look like by adopting a particular political philosophy and then extrapolating it to all areas of life. Plato’s Republic and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice represent just two of them. They are often interesting academic activities and quite good reads; but their problem for me is that living persons are often influenced by, what may be termed, ‘cultural relativism’ and would find it difficult to jettison the identity, history and baggage that comes attached with their own culture. I have written on this before and now borrow from my earlier piece entitled ‘The Consequences of Cultural Relativism’:

‘…the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected…it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own…ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others.’

Hence, cultural relativism discourages the understanding of other environments. To explain, just say a society had practised infanticide as a way of birth control (as attributed to the ancient Spartans by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/lycurgus*.html): then most modern persons would consider this to be an immoral society. However, if the majority of inhabitants of this society felt this to be agreeable conduct; and the society in question had flourished for centuries, then it would also seem to contain the longevity that made it a moral society.

Hence, I would conclude that a moral environment is in the eyes of its beholders: which may not be a satisfactory answer for many, but one should understand that we have a high tendency to judge others by our own cultural relativism.

Most good books concerning ethics have sections concerning ‘cultural relativism’, but it is described in greater detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

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